Saturday, 1 December 2018

Για την Ελλάδα, ρε γαμώτο! Or not! And Britain too, I think! I'm not sure

I'm starting this piece by way of one of my standard unnecessary preambles. Earlier this week I was at my day job, attending one of the daily stand-up meetings that management is using to tell us how great their latest project is. 

To help prove how important and interesting this new endeavour is, one member of management referred to a PowerPoint slide linking to positive news articles (I assume positive, because why else would management link to them otherwise), not caring that they were behind a Murdoch paywall, and probably not caring or perhaps even oblivious to the fact that a room half-full of humanities academics is probably the last group of people likely to be taken in by such obvious PR guff passing as journalism.

I begin with that pointless anecdote if only to ask the question of whether we as South fans could do with looking at the news we consume with a bit more caution and a detached critical eye, rather than interpreting even the slightest ambivalence about our A-League bid as a call to furious arms.

To wit, a situation was created by what was and is a rather straightforward article of little consequence about A-League expansion; a summary of what to the jaded and the unbiased alike are the obviously lesser hopes of the Canberra and South Melbourne A-League bids in securing one of the two expansion licences on offer. It was an article written by Michael Lynch, The Age's chief soccer reporter, and someone I've posted my occasional criticism of during the past eleven years on here, and before that, too. And if I'm being honest and fair, Lynch is someone whose forté is beat writing rather than dense or lyrical analytical pieces.

That's not a crime, but it does acknowledge a historic structural issue in the relationship between Australian soccer and the media. Australian soccer has been and remains an also-ran insofar as its treatment goes in the mainstream written press. It might not be a palatable fact, but it is true. And even as that relationship goes through peaks and troughs, each daily newspaper tends to end up with one and only decicated soccer writer, who is expected to cover all angles of every issue, even as the space allotted to them to do so is limited, and even as they are expected to be all things to all people - beat reporter, political analyst, on-field tactician, and quasi-historian.

These days you can add click-bait writer to those functions, a less than appealing idea for any news writer with a semblance of self-respect, but utterly necessary when newspaper revenues are in such steep decline.

(And incidentally, this is one of the reasons why I took out a digital subscription to The Age - yes there are noble sentiments in this somewhere about being part of the solution rather than the problem, but it's also for the chance to be smug and note that as a subscriber, the concept of the click-bait reader is marginally less applicable to me because of the $4.?? I allocate to this weekly expenditure.)

In the article, Lynch points out that Canberra and South are perceived - both in the public sphere, and within the behind-closed-doors decision making sphere - as being the obvious outsiders compared to the other four remaining bids. Lynch rightly asks the question about Canberra's previous poor history of soccer at a national level - both on and off the field - and the feedback he has received from current Canberra soccer followers that times have changed, especially with the nature of the city itself. Lynch compares Canberra's difficulties of being a regional centre (and thus having doubts about its ability to raise sufficient sponsorship, as well as getting a new stadium), with South's troubles of being perceived as an ethnic/old soccer throwback with limited broad appeal.

Now, Lynch is clearly not saying that he himself thinks South should be excluded from an expanded A-League because of 'ethnicity'; only that, rightly or wrongly, such perceptions exist, and that they will be a factor in the decision making process. While singling out ethnicity as a drawback factor for us, along with Canberra's tainted 1990s national league history, Lynch puts these issues into the perspective of representing:
... interesting arguments about the history, diversity and geography of the game in this country. 
These are arguments which Lynch doesn't expand upon on this article. Like I said, it's neither his speciality, nor do the constraints of time, space, and editorial line allow for something more effusive on what multiculturalism actually means in Australian society, and the way in which Jim Cairns' dream of a pluralist Australian multiculturalism persisted beyond his term in government most notably via deliberately and inadvertently insular ethnic soccer clubs. In short, history can be a launching pad, but it can also be an albatross, and if you want to read something with more expansive intellectual heft on these issues, read Joe Gorman's book rather than a quick semi-throwaway article designed as much to leverage your anger as your sense of reason.

Now Canberra fans seem to be able to handle this casual dismissal of their A-League chances better than South fans. Not having a race issue attached to that exclusion certainly makes things less emotive, but we should also note that as far as controlling their tempers online goes, South fans have been garbage at it since they first got access to the internet. I say that as someone who when they were 16 years old would use school computers to act like the prototypical uncouth online Hellas knob. Things have only gotten worse in the ensuing years, as the experience of exponentially increasing irrelevance combined with the faintest whiff of hope from FFA's Pandora's Box sends fully grown men into a collective apoplectic rage whenever someone considers South to not exactly be a prime candidate for A-League expansion.

And thus Lynch's Twitter feed went into (relative) overdrive with people wanting to hammer him and correct him. The response from Lynch to that, er, 'feedback' is made up of several tweets amalgamated by me.

Hardly ironically, Lynch's article predicted such blowback:
It is not dissimilar to the arguments that South fans – often the most vociferous, if at times intemperate – make on social media when the plausibility of their bid is questioned.
But somehow being accused of being a racist by the very same people he described as borderline nutbags surprises him. Irony dies in the deep dark internet sea. It's not like he's the first journalist either in recent times to cop that kind of abuse merely for reporting what he hears that the public is not privy to. Recently hired Sydney Morning Herald soccer writer Vince Rugari has also copped his share of social media hate from some South fans for making similar observations about South's outsider status, with those South fans being unable to grasp the idea of confidential sources, much as the same people will willingly accept obtuse answers and impossible to verify information from South Melbourne board members.

No surprises though about who one of the ringleaders of the anti-Lynch lynch-mob was, a fact one can surmise by several "tweet not available" notices (because I'm blocked by him), but disappointing if not surprising that several other South fans chose to follow that particular lemming over the edge of the cliff. To be fair though, there was a higher than usual dose of bewilderment from South fans as well, wondering what all the fuss about Lynch's article was.

Of course our lovable larrikin soon-to-be former prez Leo Athanasakis also jumped in with his own 'facts'.

Facts which are anything but of course, and which are easily debunked only if you actually know what you're talking about on these matters. Unfortunately such knowledge is limited to a mere handful of people, most of whom have nothing to do with Twitter or social media and even when they do, they are rightly reluctant to wrestle with metaphorical pigs.

[And while no doubt well intentioned, the other bloke who said it was a four-way merger including a Jewish club is also peddling half-truths at best - because let's be honest, the 1980s merger with what was left of Hakoah was little more than a takeover by South which probably mostly served to secure us a few more grounds in the Middle Park area. And I'd love to be corrected but it was my understanding that the Hamilton (named after either former South Melbourne United and founding South Melbourne Hellas committeemen Des or Bill Hamilton, or perhaps even both) award for club best and fairest was actually a supporters group initiative, not an official award from the club.]

For starters, the 1959 date - which South Melbourne FC uses as its foundation date - is the birth of the Hellas club, which was a merger of the struggling (and still very young) Greek-Australian Hellenic and Yarra Park clubs. The new entity they formed, Hellas, amalgamated with South Melbourne United, an Anglo-Celtic Australian club (what you might also term an Australian club, for lack of a better term, to describe a club founded by non-migrants), at some point in early 1960, ostensibly to get access to Middle Park, the home ground of South Melbourne United (and also Melbourne Hakoah).

To make the merger more palatable to the supporters of the small United club, the Greeks of Hellas throw a few bones United's way. They add 'South Melbourne' to the front of the Hellas name, inadvertently making the thing sound more poetic while also being unusual in being an ethnic club in early 1960s Melbourne with a ready-made and self-selected and unforced district name. They keep United's white jersey with a red vee. And they allow some committeemen from United to be on the new South Melbourne Hellas committee.

It's an arrangement which lasts a mere half decade or so. Soon enough non-Greek committeemen are a thing of the past, United's red vee is gone, and all pretence that this club represents anything in the South Melbourne area apart from the Greek migrants who live there is over. Since that time, in its glory days the club had mostly been content to gloss over that early history and the Anglo connection. This is not a judgement call - whether what happened is right or wrong is for someone else to mull over - but it is an acknowledgement of what actually happened.

Later, toward the end of the NSL era there were the beginnings of attempts to recognise that early history, though I always get the vibe that it was a minority of forward thinkers rather than staunch traditionalists responsible for those efforts. As the club found itself in the (now seemingly without end) rut of being simultaneously abandoned by the Greek-Australian community (its core supporter constituency) and alienated from its identity of being a big fish in a small pond (which had begun to attract its share of non-Greeks, but not quickly enough to form a critical mass at the critical moment), one of the flailing measures taken to recalibrate the club's identity saw some people engage in bumbling and not entirely intellectually honest attempts to leverage elements of the club's history (and parts of pre-South Melbourne Hellas history) that had been neglected (and sometimes derided) for decades.

This led to some people trying to link South Melbourne Hellas directly to the very earliest soccer clubs with the name South Melbourne, as part of an attempt to claim something that is not ours to claim. As I have noted in several places, at best South Melbourne Hellas can lay claim to being the most important club in the South Melbourne/Albert Park/Middle Park precinct; at a stretch it can perhaps lay claim to being the most notable current custodian of a local soccer culture going back to 1884.

But since we know of no formal connections between the 1884 South Melbourne club to the South Melbourne club which was almost formed to play after soccer was reformed in Melbourne in the early 1900s, and certainly no known connection to the 1920s/30s South Melbourne, can we really claim a legacy that fragmented and uncertain? Never mind also that the 1920s/30s South Melbourne was a totally different club to the Middle Park Schoolboys junior club which eventually became South Melbourne United in the mid 1930s (with United thus being more aptly classed as an Anglo-Celtic Australian club than as a British club).

These are, in the greater scheme of things, annoying and pedantic points of history, wielded here by me not to show how smart I am - because at any rate, most of the work in this area has been done by others - but rather as an illustration of how utterly stupid discussions of history are, especially when they are made by people who have no respect for something they claim they have respect for while also claiming that others have no respect for that same history. In other words, as much as I'm drawn to the facts of what happened pre-1959, these bits of trivia become less important in a situation like this than the reasons and manner in which they are deployed -  too often in a shallow way to score cheap political points, ironically mostly in an environment where most supporters of Australian soccer see history as neither burden nor blessing, if they think about it at all.

Not that any of that matters, of course.


  1. But hey, why allow the truth to get in the way of a good story. This nonsense that there is a direct link to a club from the late 19th century is what flames the fires of those who attack our club. We look stupid and I hate to say - desperate.

    How people can get annoyed at Lynch's article is beyond me. He did not attack the club, merely outlining a few bones of contention. The less said about that individual who you cannot see his twitter posts, the better.

    1. There are ways to acknowledge and pay proper homage to all of those histories, but it requires qualities such as subtlety and humility. Apart from the idea that any due homage should be done for its own sake, and not in the service of some ulterior motive, it also requires acknowledgment that South Melbourne Hellas has for most of its existence refused to engage with those histories. Again, that's not a crime, but you can't go from 0-100 on these things in a matter of seconds without making it look like a cheap stunt.

      As for the response to Lynch's article, I had South and non-South people contacting me out of the blue to ask what the hell was going on, wondering how such a reckless pile-on would do South's cause any good.

    2. Not that any of that matters.


A few notes on comments.

We've had a lot of fun over the years with my freewheeling comments policy, but all good things must come to an end. Therefore I will no longer be approving comments that contain personal abuse of any sort.

Still, if your post doesn't get approved straight away, it's probably because I haven't seen it yet.

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